According to many observations, the Cubs are basically being handed first place in the National League Central and being told, "Don't screw it up." The key to their whole season will be not to believe any of those observations, and at the same time, not to think about October at all until, say, October.
I'm not surprised so many people are picking the Cubs to win the division again. They have won it two years running, and no other team in their division has upgraded enough to challenge them. Of course, the second part remains to be seen once the season begins. Milwaukee lost its two best starters, and didn't upgrade anywhere else except at closer, and you can argue that Trevor Hoffman's best days are in the past. St. Louis didn't do much either, picking up Khalil Greene at shortstop, but they have a couple great, young arms in the bullpen that will mature this year, and Chris Carpenter is back. Houston, likewise, didn't do too much.
The problem, however, is that all three of those other teams finished at least 10 games above .500 last season. That may show how truly great the Cubs were in '08, but it also shows how good the whole division was. None of those three teams really got any worse during the off-season, though Milwaukee lost the single most talented player in CC Sabbathia. Meanwhile, Cincinnati, a loser last year, did get better, obtaining a good-hitting catcher in Ramon Hernandez and dumping a poor-fielding, free-swinging power hitter in Adam Dunn, while holding onto a very strong core of young players.
So, I think there are really five teams in the play-off contest in the N.L. Central. The Cubs may not only have a hard time winning 97 games again, they also will have a hard time winning the division, but they are certainly capable of doing it.
Here's my prediction for the 2009 starting line-up:
LF Alfonso Soriano
CF Kosuke Fukudome/2B Ryan Theriot (against lefties)
1B Derrek Lee
3B Aramis Ramirez
RF Milton Bradley
C Geovany Soto
2B Mike Fontenot
SS Ryan Theriot/CF Reed Johnson (against lefties)
Lou Piniella's big ambition this spring (other than the since-forgotten idea of moving Soriano down in the line-up) is to create a line-up that makes better us of lefties. That issue may be the only thing keeping Fukie as a starter as the season begins. If he tanks, expect to see an increase in Joey Gathright sightings, though Lou may also just give up on the commitment to lefties and give Johnson the job he probably deserves anyway.
Looking at the line-up, it's obvious the Cubs did not make any of the trades that we suggested last fall, but they did make some deals. They signed a trouble-making, injury-prone hitting-machine named Milton Bradley. I wonder how many plate appareance they will get out of him--I'll be surprised at more than 500. They jettisoned good guy, multi-position wonder Mark DeRosa for, well, for practically nothing as it turns out. They signed 2B/SS Aaron Miles, who now seems like an after-thought with Fontenot having already basically won the 2B starting job-but still a good pick up considering that they also did part with Ronny Cedeno.
What else? They of course parted with Kerry Wood to give Carlos Marmol or new acquisition Kevin Gregg a shot at closer. They dumped Bobby Howry and Michael Wuertz. They picked up speed by signing Gathright, though Gathright's bat is questionable. They lost a quality-hitting, strong-fielding back-up catcher in Henry Blanco, and it's still unclear whether Koyie Hill or free agent signing Paul Bako can pick up the slack, though both reportedly have been good handling the pitching staff. Finally, though not lastly, they sent Jason Marquis packing, giving Sean Marshall, Jeff Samarzdija, free agent signing Aaron Heilman and others a shot at the No. 5 starter job, a job that Marshall seems to have won.
Put all those deals together, and I think you more or less come out even. I still think they essentially downgraded at closer just as Wood was getting comfortable for either a guy who is emotionally unstable (Marmol) or just not as good (Gregg). They lost a very useful, loose dugout guy and increasingly good hitter (DeRosa), but his right-handed bat made him expendable, and picking up two quality switch-hitters (Bradley and Miles) makes up for the loss (and switch-hitter are always favorites of SBW). Meanwhile, Marshall may finally be ready for primetime as the No. 5 mound man.
Speaking of mound men, how about this potential pitching staff:
SP Carlos Zambrano
SP Ryan Dempster
SP Ted Lilly
SP Rich Harden
SP Sean Marshall
RP Jeff Samarzdija
RP Carlos Marmol
RP Kevin Gregg
RP Aaron Heilman
RP Chad Gaudin
RP Neal Cotts
RP Luis Vizcaino
Cotts may have to make it because he's the only lefty in the pen, though I wonder if the Cubs will perhaps trade Vizcaino, Angel Guzman or Kevin Hart for a southpaw to take the spot that might otherwise go to Vizcaino. Except for the closer issue, I think the pitching staff looks good. I don't like Gregg as a possible closer, and he may not be as good a set-up man as Marmol, but he's an obvious upgrade from the fading Howry. Heilman didn't do well in the Mets' pen, but looks great this spring. Among the starters, Marshall is poised for a great year. Harden has been treated with kid gloves this spring and would probably be better as the sparingly-used fifth starter than Marshall.
There's no reason to expect anything worse or better than 2008 from the other three: Zambrano probably will be good between his implosions, Dempster may fall back a bit, but has now proved himself as a starter, and Lilly is still the most reliable pitcher the Cubs have.
What this all adds up to when throw in another utility man here and there (Micah Hoffpauir, maybe Sam Fuld or Jake Fox) is probably a first place team--but not by much. Lee's bat could become a concern, and Soriano, who supposedly will be running more this year, will have to be watched closely. Theriot and Fontenot right now look better than last year, and Bradley is a real threat is he stays healthy. No reason to expect Soto to drop off, and Fukie will either bounce back or be a non-factor by May.
My prediction for the Cubs is first place, maybe 90-72. At worst, I think they'll get the wild card if Milwaukee, St. Louis or Houston manages some magic. My hope is for a World Series, but as good as the team looks, I don't think they look any better prepared for a best-of-five play-off series than they were last year. That doesn't mean they won't do it, but if there's a reason that they can do it this year after going 0-6 in the postseason the last two years, Lou and his players may need to rummage around in their own heads to find it.